Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Eric Altemus
Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: In “Dead Air,” you portray the wrath of tornadoes in incredible detail. Do you have any history with them? How much research did you put into the natural disaster before you wrote the piece?
Eric Altemus: I’m a Midwesterner, so tornadoes have always been a presence throughout the summers in my life. Many of my stories feature weather as a major detail or motif. I’ve always been fascinated by the power of extreme weather, so much so that I wanted to be a meteorologist when I was growing up. I wanted to be the person talking about Tornado Warnings on the news, reviewing the path of the storm with that interactive map. However, as I got older, I never displayed the aptitude or interest needed in science and math to realistically pursue a career in the field. (It was probably for the best.)
Austin, the story’s setting, is also inspired by the events of my upbringing. My parents and I lived north of the city, in Leander, for several years. Many of the details and depictions of the sky and surrounding landscape are a result of the time we spent in Texas. Most of the research that I did for this story involved storm chasing, and it was one of the more difficult aspects of the story to pin down, because it’s more of a hobby than a career. I had to constantly work to define Owen’s motivation as a storm chaser in the greater context of the financial and medical crises that occur in the story.
RR: We’re drawn in by the voice of the strong and dynamic first-person narrator. Can you discuss how you developed your characters and especially the voice of Owen?
EA: Owen and Kay’s relationship went through several versions before it finally became something I found satisfactory and compelling. It wasn’t until I made them a middle-aged, childless couple that other details began to emerge, like their home flipping business, which eventually led to tornado chasing as one of Owen’s hobbies after it failed. Ultimately, I found that the key to forming the voice was putting constant pressure on Owen to react in the face of something greater, whether it was a tornado or the diagnosis. But I knew the story couldn’t always be gloom and doom if it wanted to be interesting, and that heavily informed Owen’s naïve attempts to care for Kay early on in the story, and darkly humorous exchanges between Owen and Kay on their way to the hospital.
Revising these characters wasn’t without its share of problems. “Dead Air” was written in response to the diagnosis of a close family member, which occurred shortly before I relocated to Oregon for my MFA. In order for the story to succeed, it became necessary to reconcile the two as the story began to take on a life of its own. I’d say that out of all the stories I’ve completed recently, this one underwent the most revision to balance fact and fiction while finding the right words that best served the story.
RR: What are some of the challenges of writing in the first-person, as opposed to other points of view? When you begin writing a story, do you typically know whose perspective it will take on?
EA: To me, writing in first-person is easy to do, but difficult to do well, which is why it’s such a joy to read when it works. Limitation is the big challenge, I think, because you’re restricted to telling the events of the story through one character’s experience. This can make the task of effectively rendering actions or motivations of other characters a challenge in scene. On top of that, your character’s narration has to be some combination of believable and compelling, as well as relatable for readers. In “Dead Air,” it was a challenge to find a balance between Owen’s internal obsession with tornadoes and the present events of the diagnosis occurring in scene.
It’s rare for me to deviate from a particular story’s perspective once I have a complete draft, however. I’m typically inspired to begin a new piece in first-person by a turn of phrase in a character’s interior monologue, or by a unique observation they make in a scene, so if I’m able to see that through to a complete story, I’ve usually settled on that character as the definitive perspective for the piece. About halfway through the revision process, as I began drafting the scene of Owen’s first experience with tornadoes, I knew that “Dead Air” was his story to tell.
RR: Who in Hollywood would you cast for your characters if your piece became a movie?
EA: I’m admittedly not that big of a movie buff. I go to the theater maybe two or three times a year. That being said, I think Kay would be a great role for Frances McDormand, who recently appeared in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Like Kay, her character was headstrong and willing to speak her mind. Owen’s part was a little trickier. I think he’d be a good fit for Matt Damon, whose roles I’ve always enjoyed watching. I think he has a good balance of being tough yet compassionate in his roles, which has always been an important part of the relationship displayed in “Dead Air.” The Coen Brothers would probably be my directorial pick, since I love the wide landscape shots in Fargo. And hey, if nothing else, you can always call Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, right?
RR: What have you been reading lately?
EA: I rotate through several short story collections at any given point in time. I’m constantly picking through new books for inspiration and revisiting old favorites on my bookshelf at home for help with specific challenges in my own work. Lately, it’s been Tim Gautreaux’s Signals, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Fresh Complaint, John Jodzio’s If You Lived Here, You’d Already Be Home and Lydia Peele’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing. In terms of recent novels, I was blown away by George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and I’m currently reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline. I’m very fortunate to work for the University of Michigan Library, where I have access to an amazing amount of literature on a daily basis.
Equally important to me in my process is music, which helps me think about my writing on different terms when revising. I’ve been listening to Mount Eerie’s Now Only, David Bazan’s Blanco, Pianos Become the Teeth’s Wait for Love, and Circa Survive’s The Amulet recently.
Eric Altemus’ work appears in Issue 5.2 here.